Mountain View City Council members agreed Tuesday night to allow the Los Altos School District to pursue land for a school within the San Antonio shopping center, with a narrow majority deciding not to impose restrictions on the school's design or demand the school serve local students in the area.
The 4-3 decision marks the latest checkpoint in an ongoing debate between the city's elected officials over whether to extend major financial support for the district's land acquisition plans with or without strings attached. A majority of the council has voted in favor of giving broad flexibility to the school district on what to do with the future campus, and declined to reverse course at the June 26 meeting.
Mayor Lenny Siegel and council members Chris Clark, Ken Rosenberg and John McAlister voted in favor, while council members Pat Showalter, Margaret Abe-Koga and Lisa Matichak dissented.
In a letter earlier this month, Superintendent Jeff Baier told city staff that the district was seeking to acquire about 9.6 acres of land in the northeastern corner of the San Antonio shopping center, owned by the company Federal Realty. The district's vision calls for replacing Kohl's and other businesses on the property with a school and adjacent park space.
The June 8 letter was short on specific details, but stated the district planned to use eminent domain to acquire the land for "the future development of a new school and public park," rather than through a typical real estate transaction. The surprise decision drops earlier plans to build a school at another location across the street, and required the council's blessing to proceed.
When a public agency like a school district decides to pursue condemnation, property owners can either fight it in court or work toward a negotiated settlement, and district officials anticipate that Federal Realty is willing to do the latter. More details on the transaction, including the anticipated cost for the land, are expected to be available later this year.
In order to make the land purchase pencil out, district officials are brokering a deal with the city of Mountain View whereby they would "sell" the unused density allowed on the acquired property -- a process known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs) -- to developers throughout the city. This would generate $79.3 million in extra money to defray the cost of expensive land. Council members also agreed to earmark up to $23 million in park funds to finance the land purchase, which would create joint-use open space for city residents adjacent to school facilities.
Given the "very generous" contributions by the city, Councilwoman Abe-Koga said the city ought to start laying out some conditions and requirements for the help. She said she wanted to make it a requirement for the campus to have a track and field and a gym accessible by the community, and wanted a hard deadline on whether the campus would be home to a neighborhood school or Bullis Charter School, which has yet to be determined.
"I just don't understand what the hesitancy is in putting those types of requirements," Abe-Koga said.
Councilwoman Matichak said the shopping center may be a suitable site for a school, but she wasn't prepared to sign off on the school district's new plans until she had more clarity on the use of the site as a neighborhood school or a charter school. Councilwoman Showalter also opposed the decision, saying the city's support should be contingent on the campus being a neighborhood school serving the nearby residents.
"I'm not going to vote for it unless it's a neighborhood school," she said.
But the majority of the council stuck with prior decisions, opting against conditioning the city's financial support on the future campus design. Councilman Rosenberg said a long list of requirements including amenities like a sports pavilion and a track and field could kill the school district's plans to build a Mountain View campus, and that imposing conditions would mean the council doesn't "really" want a school in the San Antonio area. He called it "ridiculous" to start demanding a sports pavilion, a gym, a swimming pool and even a sand volleyball court, joking that the council may as well demand an archery range too.
"I don't understand why we have to put all these parameters around it right now unless the idea is to kill the school," he said.
Mayor Siegel encouraged his colleagues not to start putting deadlines on the school district, and said now is not the time to start calling for campus design requirements. Demanding a gym that could cost upwards of $20 million might make the project infeasible and kill the deal, he said.
"Imposing conditions of that level means you don't really want a school," he said.
Also a concern is where the businesses on the 9.6 acres of shopping center property will go if they are displaced by the school district. Business owner Alex Cheung, who owns Sushi 88 and Pearl Cafe on the property, said he wasn't notified of the school district's plans and was distressed to hear that his businesses may be forced to move through an article in a newspaper, rather than through the district or Federal Realty.
"To find out about this proposal through a public newspaper I felt is unfair to us and our family," Cheung said.
Jan Sweetnam, chief operating officer of Federal Realty's West Coast branch, assured council members that the company would award businesses with fair compensation for moving expenses, value of the lease and any other awards that come with condemnation. He said the company would work toward "fair resolutions" and try to accommodate everyone it can.
City Manager Dan Rich said that the city's agreement finalizing the use of TDRs and park funds will make clear that the city has an interest in maximizing amenities similar to those at a junior high school, along with a clear plan for transportation and traffic mitigation and a relocation plan for the businesses that would be displaced. He clarified, however, that there's a big difference between stating what's important for the city versus laying out absolute requirements.
"It's one thing to say we want to strongly encourage transportation solutions or busing. It's another thing to say we're not going to support this unless there's a gym," Rich said.
A lengthy search
The school district has been on the hunt for land ever since voters passed the $150 million Measure N bond in 2014, convening a committee to search for real estate and negotiating for a potential sale in several areas in and around the San Antonio region of Mountain View, which is the epicenter of the district's future enrollment growth. Despite bobbing in and out of real estate negotiations with property owners in the past, Baier told the Voice that this is the closest the district has been to actually closing out a deal.
Past considerations include four different sites around the shopping center, as well as the Old Mill and former Safeway site on the corner of California Street and San Antonio Road. The only one that gained serious traction was a plan to buy property at 5150 El Camino Real in Los Altos, which school board members later decided not to pursue.
Baier said the city deserves credit for paving the way for the land acquisition, which he and school board members have called the last and best shot of creating a school in a fast-redeveloping area of Mountain View.
"Through incredibly complex collaboration, we really got to a point where this has absolute possibilities here," Baier said. "This could really work."
Federal Reality purchased 33 acres making up the eastern half of the shopping center in 2015, buying the property for $62.2 million, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. The Business Journal suggests that the low price might have to do with a long-term lease with Walmart on the southern end of the shopping center, which would not be included in the district's negotiated purchase.
If the acquisition goes through, Baier said there could be big benefits for city residents in the region. While the district would be purchasing 9.6 acres of land, an additional two acres adjacent to the property could also be available for city park space. Baier said a nearby developer, Greystar, has expressed interest in buying the two acres in order to meet its park land requirements for a nearby residential housing project. The purchase would be a normal real estate transaction between Greystar and Federal Realty, rather than part of the condemnation, and Baier said the district's acquisition plans are not contingent on the separate real estate deal.
The earliest the district could buy the land, construct a campus and open doors for students would be fall 2021, district officials said.